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Posted on August 11, 2011 by Christine Crosby in Joe Biden, Mary Ann Cooper

Joe Biden – America’s Second Family

We’ve had several grandfathers in the Vice President’s Residence before, but we’ve never had one who was quite so grand.

When he was a child, Joe Biden’s father used to tell him, “Champ, when you get knocked down, you get up. You just get up.”

Little did Joe Biden know how many times life would knock him down and how hard it would be to get up. Life’s early tragedies, however, defined Joe Biden as a fighter.

At a time when others might have wondered why he wasn’t slowly cruising to a soft landing with his wife Jill-punctuating an illustrious career-Biden threw himself back into battle as Barack Obama’s running mate in a bruising, yet successful presidential run. Now Biden is preparing to help his president take on the worst economic times since the Great Depression, escalating healthcare costs, two wars and a worldwide energy crisis.

The question remains: Why?

“I’m in this for my grandchildren,” Biden told us, speaking from a phone right after a campaign rally inFlorida. Biden said he wants for his grandkids (Naomi, 14; Finnegan, 10; Maisey, 8; Natalie, 4; and Hunter, 2) the America he remembers during his youth inPennsylvania.

“When I was growing up,” Biden shouted into the phone over a background swelling with crowd cheers, “the mothers and fathers in our neighborhoods told us that if we worked hard, played by the rules and reached for something better, there wasn’t a single thing we could not do. We believed it, and it was true. Right now, there are a lot of families who are struggling. They need to have that same sense of hope that life can be better.”

Still, after shutting down his own presidential campaign earlier this year, Biden thought he would play out the political season from the sidelines. When asked by reporters if he was in the Veep stakes, he’d say, “I’m not the guy, fellas, honest.”

In fact, when Obama tried to reach Biden to offer him the spot on the ticket, Biden wasn’t inWashingtonwaiting by the phone-he was at his granddaughter’s birthday party inWilmington,Delaware. Maisey was turning 8.  Biden says the family gathers together at the big old farm table in the kitchen of his home for every birthday, without exception.

After Maisey blew out the candles and the cake was cut, Biden broke his news almost casually.

“Hey, I have something that I’d like to announce. Barack called me and asked me to be vice president.”

The family cheered and hugged.

Maisey was the first to break ranks. “Pop,” she asked Biden, “Can I have more ice cream cake?”

JillBiden recalls that everything changed with that one single phone call from then-Senator Obama. Just the night before, she and her husband had strolled the neighborhood streets alone. Now helicopters flew overhead and they were followed everywhere they went. Soon it was off to the convention.

Biden was comfortable with his decision to join the Obama ticket, but an incident at the convention involving his grandchildren underscored the rightness of his choice.

“My granddaughter Finnegan came up to me and grabbed my coat and said, ‘Pop?’ I said, ‘What’s up, honey?’ She said, ‘Malia and Sasha [Obama] and I want to have a sleepover.’ I was delighted. I said, ‘You do?’

“Later, I learned that at the same time, Michelle’s [Obama] two daughters came up to her and said, ‘Mommy, we want to have a sleepover with Finnegan, Maisey and Natalie.’

“The next thing we know, we’re clearing out a hotel room at the convention and putting down mats and ordering up pizza and movies. I walked in and looked around the room, looked at those kids together, and said, ‘This isAmerica.’ I have no doubt why I’m here.”

Biden’s public life was launched against the backdrop of a personal tragedy that has reinforced his understanding of how precious and fleeting life can be.

In 1972, when he was 29, he could have considered his life perfect. He had defeated a popular incumbent senator, J. Caleb Boggs, inDelaware, and he was headed for a career inWashington,D.C.

And then, while shopping for a Christmas tree with their three children, Biden’s first wife, Neilia, was in a fatal automobile accident that also killed their 13-month-old daughter, Naomi.

Biden raced back fromWashington, where he had gone to set up his new office to be with his hospitalized sons, Beau, 3, and Hunter, 2. Gripped with despair, he considered resigning from the Senate.

“Most of all I was numb, but there were moments when the pain cut through like a shard of broken glass. I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in; how suicide wasn’t just an option, but a rational option. But I’d look at Beau and Hunter asleep and wonder what new terrors their own dreams held, and wonder who would explain to my sons my being gone, too. And I knew I had no choice but to fight to stay alive.”

Beau and Hunter recovered, and their father did not walk away from the Senate. He did, however, tell then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield that he would stay in office only if he could commute by train every day back to Wilmington so he could be with his family-a practice he continued until the time he joined the Obama ticket.

Three years later, Joe Biden met Jill Jacobs, a Delaware school teacher. After dating her a year, the subject of marriage came up-but not from Joe or Jill. Biden was approached by his two sons. who suggested that the three of them should marry Jill. Biden decided that was a great idea, but he had to propose to Jill five times over the next several months before she said yes.

By the time they married in 1977, it was a family affair. Beau and Hunter, then 8 and 7, joined Joe and Jill on their “honeymoon” in New York City, the highlight of which was a trip to the Broadway play Annie.

Jill made Biden and his family whole again.

“That’s when I realized exactly what Jill’s love had done for me; it had given me permission to live again. I was lousy at building protective walls around my heart. My whole life-for good or for ill-I had been driven by my passions, as if I needed to take the risk on all the big things in life to feel alive.Jill made me see that passion was still the controlling feature of my existence.”

The Bidens added to their family in 1981 with the birth of their daughter, Ashley.

In 1988, the Champ was knocked down once again. This time Biden had to have life-threatening brain surgery to remove two aneurysms. Without the surgery, the ballooning arteries could tear without warning, leaking blood and causing a paralyzing stroke. Once again, Beau and Hunter were facing the prospect of losing a parent.

“My sons were trying to be upbeat when they came to my bedside. ‘You’re two great young men,’ I told them-they were 19 and 18 years old-‘and I’m so proud of you, so I know you’ll live up to your obligations. I know you’ll take great care of your mother and your sister. I love you guys.’ I was at peace, then, because I knew I had lived up their expectations; in what mattered most to me, being a father, I had been the kind of man I wanted to be.”

The kind of man he wants to be as vice president, Biden told GRAND, can only happen if the Obama administration can accomplish two major goals.

“The first thing we’ve got to do is restore the middle class. We have to create jobs, provide affordable healthcare, and make education a top priority so that our kids can compete globally. The second thing we need to do-equally important to our children and grandchildren-is restore America’s reputation in the world. A major part of that is ending the war in Iraq-responsibly.”

Ask Biden to describe his grandchildren and he has a simple answer.

“Jill and I are blessed with five wonderful, beautiful grandchildren. They call me Pop and they call Jill, Nana.”

Of one granddaughter, Finnegan (named after Biden’s maternal grandfather), he says, “She’s going to have to grow up to be tall, very smart and beautiful because that’s quite a name to carry. So far, she carries it very well.” Biden says Finnegan “was the one who pushed the hardest for me to be vice president. When I asked her what she thought I should do, she said, ‘I think you should do it…It would be really cool, and you and Barack Obama will make a difference.'”

Hunter, his only grandson, he says is nicknamed “the Prince.” “If you noticed,” says Biden, “at the convention I couldn’t get him off the stage.”

Naomi, who was Biden’s first grandchild, was named after his deceased daughter.

Biden says, “Granddaughters are the best. They always love their Pop no matter what. It doesn’t matter. I was in the mall with Naomi-she’s 15-and she said, ‘Pop, can we hold hands?’ I thought, Wow. Imagine that.”

Visitors to the Biden home say it’s common to see Pop Joe on the floor playing with his grandkids. He says they all visit for all the holidays and at least 15 other times during the year.

He admits he andJillhave a fully stocked playroom in their home. He calls it “grandchildren bait.”

“A perfect day with my grandkids is over at my house in Delaware-swimming in our pool, reading books and relaxing all together.”

Now, change is at hand. Joe andJillBiden will have to create “grandchildren bait” in their newWashingtonhome in the Vice President’s Residence at the Naval Observatory. The bait will include a new dog.

“I’ve always wanted a dog. When I was running for president, Jillsaid, ‘Nobody is home to take care of a dog, but if you win, we’ll be in the White House and can get one.’ We weren’t even thinking about the Vice President’s Residence.  Then, when I was being vetted as vice president, Jill said, ‘I’ll make you a deal. Get elected and you’ll get your dog.’

Biden says, dog or no dog, it won’t be difficult to make the adjustment and reel in the grandchildren for frequent visits to his new home.

“Finnegan let me know that the distance between her house and the Naval Observatory is 1 mile and 5 tenths. Her little sister Maisey said, ‘Yeah, and it’s got a swimming pool, too!'”

Now, that’s change the Bidens can believe in.


Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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